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Scott Morrison becomes prime minister

Scott Morrison: He is Australia’s fifth leader in as many years

MALCOLM TURNBULL calls it “madness”. On August 21st he won a leadership ballot among MPs from the Liberal party, the mainstay of the governing coalition, allowing him to stay on as prime minister. But the defeated challenger, Peter Dutton, a populist former policeman backed by the right wing of the party, refused to abandon his insurrection. He persuaded a majority of the MPs to demand a second vote, just three days later. Mr Turnbull, seeing his support ebb away, stepped down. But having precipitated the crisis, Mr Dutton’s cabal did not have the support to take power. Instead, Scott Morrison, the treasurer (ie, finance minister, although, confusingly, Australia has someone with that title too), won 45 of his colleagues’ votes, to Mr Dutton’s 40. He has already been sworn in as prime minister, and will name his cabinet in the coming days.

Australians, like Mr Turnbull, are dizzy at the turnover. From 1983 to 2007, Australia had just three prime ministers. Since then, the office has changed hands six times. It will probably have another new occupant in a few months. An election is due by May, and the governing Liberal-National coalition was already behind in the polls, before it succumbed to furious infighting. It seems unlikely to recover in time.

One reason that bloodless coups are so common is that Australian governments serve for three-year terms—one of the shortest tenures in the world. Politicians constantly thinking about the next election have often gambled that a change of boss might improve their chances. The opposition Labor Party is not immune. In 2010 Julia Gillard toppled Kevin Rudd, the then-prime minister. Three years later, as her popularity tanked, he returned the favour. Only last month, the job security of Bill Shorten, the current opposition leader, was in question.

Yet even by recent standards, this spill, as the leadership coups are known, looks messy. It was triggered by a bitter rivalry between Mr Turnbull’s moderate arm of the Liberal Party and a staunchly conservative minority. The rift has led to endless turmoil. In 2009, when the Liberals were in opposition, Mr Turnbull was unseated as party leader by one of the right-wing agitators, Tony Abbott, who went on to win an election in 2013. Mr Turnbull eventually got his own back, turfing Mr Abbott out as both party leader and prime minister in 2015. Mr Abbott, a strong supporter of Mr Dutton, has been making trouble ever since—something that was easy to do, since the coalition has a majority of just one in the lower house.

The latest decapitation seems particularly destructive, given that Mr Turnbull remained personally popular. He probably represented the party’s best hope of victory in the forthcoming election. In previous spills, unpopular leaders have always been replaced by ones with higher approval ratings among voters (even if the new leaders never did very well in the subsequent elections). But Mr Morrison is less liked by voters than Mr Turnbull was.

Mr Morrison now faces the challenge of stitching up a divided party. In that, he may do a better job than Mr Turnbull. As treasurer, Mr Morrison was a close ally of the outgoing prime minister. But he is a social conservative who opposes gay marriage and voluntary euthanasia. The right reveres him for his role in reinstating a strict immigration policy which exiles asylum-seekers to offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Healer or otherwise, his time in charge is likely to be short. Mr Turnbull has promised to retire from parliament “before too long”. That will trigger a by-election in his seat of Wentworth, in the suburbs of Sydney. Mr Turnbull held it comfortably, but its voters are liberal and well-educated and could turn on the party following the leadership fiasco. That would erase the coalition’s parliamentary majority, and force Mr Morrison to call an early election. If the Liberals retain the seat, he would probably prefer to wait until the last minute before calling an election. Even then, Australians are unlikely to forget how he came to power.

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